By Michael Soris
The education sector or more specifically the higher education sector is big business in Sri Lanka. One need not go far to understand its potential from an entrepreneurial point of view, as the Sunday papers are heavy with the number of special supplements on higher education with an information overload on the spread of choices available to students seeking degrees outside of state universities.
Amongst the advertisements are several locally-based international universities promoting education abroad, each competing with the other to prove higher quality, better choice and better learning environment, etc. Degrees offered vary from accountancy, business, engineering, micro bio technology, human resources, IT, law, fashion and design...the list goes on.
While the choice of higher education and opportunity of getting any kind of degree is admittedly higher in comparison to 40 years ago, affordability is a factor. For students who cannot get into a state university due to various constraints, the only choice would be an international degree, which often comes at an exorbitant cost.
Given this fact and the situation of state universities, which are heavily constrained with limited availability in terms of student intakes, what Sri Lanka hasn’t encouraged by far and large is the not-for-profit model. It is a model that has been successfully used in other parts of the world, especially in the more developed west.
Not-for-profit is a hybrid animal, as it serves the purpose of not being state owned while not being profit oriented. This hybrid is a required option in the education mix of any country, which hopes to develop and retain skills. This is more so in the case of Sri Lanka, where most state universities have become lethargic and pedantic in the way they produce graduates. The for-profit international universities while offering local students a means of getting a degree, gear them towards other objectives, which are mostly out of the country. This results in massive brain drain as we have experienced in the past.
A not-for-profit on the other hand, provides students with an in between choice, that most often is of equal or even higher quality. The most significant advantage of this model is that it is a far more affordable means of getting a degree than what for-profit international institutions would offer.
Apart from this vital factor, not-for-profits are also more grounded in terms of their objectives, which in part, align with the nation’s vision at large, i.e. looking at offering degrees that fit the job requirements of the country.
Not-for-profits could also be supported by the state, in terms of grants that would spur the education drive in the country. This in turn would help in covering more ground than what the public universities could handle, without burdening state coffers.
Apart from these benefits, not-for-profits are run by a board of governors and not by directors, as in the case of most for-profit institutions. The very objective of being a non-profit is that its profits, from student fees and tuition, etc. are plowed back into the institution, for the benefit of the university and its students. This model has produced some very successful higher education institutions in the world including greats such as, Harvard, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Massachusetts University of Technology, DePaul, Rice and University of California, etc.
To date, we have only one example of this model in the country i.e. the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT), which was founded almost 20 years ago. The institution, formed on the not-for-profit model, was originally launched with the objective of producing IT students, since during that time there was a dire need for thousands of people qualified in this field.
The University of Moratuwa, which back then, was the only university that could provide these graduates, was falling far behind on the required matrix. SLIIT is an interesting story of how university dons, state organisations and private initiatives came together to form a hybrid, which in a way, took the best of both sides of the equation i.e. the private and public sectors and created an affordable model for students who had the ability to qualify and could pay a reasonable fee for their education.
The best part of this model is that once it gets up and running, it has the facility to pay back sponsors and become a totally independent entity, free of encumbrances, yet run at a profit merely on good management, quality product and clever marketing. SLIIT is such an institution today and has affiliated itself to several international universities, giving the institution higher credibility, in terms of producing graduates that are more desirable in the job market.
It is puzzling therefore, as to why the policymakers have not gone into supporting this model and encouraged more universities styled after the SLIIT formula – more so considering that this kind of university helps reduce the burden on the state, both financially and in meeting the higher education needs of the country.
One of the objectives of the Mahapola Trust Fund is to “set up and assist in the management and conduct of schools, institutes, foundations and similar institutions engaged in the furtherance of education.” Therefore, the trust should be actively involved in this endeavour, as it did in the case of SLIIT, helping the institute to set up their campus in Malabe, just three years after it being established.
The trust has been amply compensated when SLIIT paid back the initial sum borrowed to build the campus, with interest and continues to pay rent for the land on which it is built. The lease of the land will amount to close on Rs.2 billion in 60 years.
Like SLIIT, not-for-profit universities are accredited education institutions, which ensure that their students earn degrees that have value. Because they give back in profits to the university, they are better positioned to offer students a better study experience overall and a higher rate of success.
(Michael Soris can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org)